KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Sometimes Bill Self wonders if he’s done something to anger his fellow Big 12 coaches. Year after year, they fill out the preseason ballot and hang that special burden of great expectations around the necks of his Kansas Jayhawks.
Of course, year after year the coaches are right. This 2007-08 season should be no exception. The Jayhawks return all but one player from the team that won 33 games a year ago and lost to UCLA in the regional final of the NCAA tournament. They seem to deserve the favorite’s label given them by 10 Big 12 coaches.
“Obviously, I have no friends in the league if they did that,” Self deadpanned.
Actually, being a favorite is a role the Jayhawks have grown comfortable with, one they would be loath to give up as they go gunning for their fourth straight regular-season title.
“I know I get tired of it to an extent, but I don’t know if (players) do because expectations create an interest,” Self said. “I think our guys get tougher and harder because of it.”
The one big question mark hovering over the Jayhawks also dogs several other programs as the Big 12 heads into its 12th season: Can all the best players get healthy?
The Jayhawks can’t be sure if junior guard Brandon Rush, their leading scorer each of the past two seasons, will be fully recovered from the ACL surgery that knocked him out of the NBA draft last June. Rush won’t be cleared for contact until at least Dec. 1.
Texas, facing life without Kevin Durant, its national player of the year last season after a brilliant freshman campaign, is hoping for big things from top recruit Gary Johnson, even though the 6-foot-7 forward was diagnosed with an unspecified heart condition in May. He was cleared to play in the first exhibition game, but his status for the Nov. 12 season opener against Texas-San Antonio remains uncertain.
“He’s a difference-maker, there’s no doubt,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes.
Mark Turgeon, one of three new head coaches in the league, is also having to replace a top player in point guard Acie Law IV at Texas A&M. One player who could take up the slack is 6-9 senior Joseph Jones, who averaged almost 14 points and seven rebounds last year as the Aggies won a school-record 27 games. But Jones has been nursing a sprained foot and a couple of sore knees.
Kansas State also has a new coach in Frank Martin, the assistant who was rushed into the job in April following the abrupt, and embarrassing for the Wildcats, resignation of Bob Huggins.
Martin has Michael Beasley, the 6-9 freshman who may be the most heralded recruit, other than Durant, to come into the Big 12. He also has 6-6 Bill Walker, a brilliant athlete who played just six games last year before tearing his ACL and undergoing surgery.
“I want to prove to myself that I can still battle back and be the player I’ve always been,” said Walker, who says he has never been in better shape. “I’m ready to tear it up this year.”
In his one and only season of college basketball, Durant was almost unbelievable on some nights, scoring 30 points or more a Big 12-record 30 times before becoming the second man taken in the NBA draft.
Nobody is claiming the Longhorns will have another one like him. But according to the preseason poll, they will again have the league’s player of the year in sophomore point guard D.J. Augustin.